Max von Sydow

The Greatest Story Ever Told

greatest story ever told

There is irony in this. A movie about one of the greatest storytellers ever suffers from an inability to tell a great story. Indeed, it is a rare Biblical film that manages to offend both Christians and non by its epic dullness. There are several cuts, the longest of which is over four hours, and all manage to portray Jesus as one of the most lifeless men to have walked the earth. Rather than a charismatic leader to thousands, he is an emotional blank with an affinity for proverbs.

The movie fancies itself a greatest hits album, borrowing well known verses and stories from all four Gospels. Unfortunately, these hits are flat, one-note tunes that do nothing to reflect the life of the man at the center of the film. What the movie really is is a Biblical checklist. Jesus is born; John the Baptist announces the Savior’s coming; Jesus begins his ministry and gathers followers; he is tempted by the devil; he performs miracles; he teaches love of Christ and mankind; people feel threatened by his influence; he dies; he rises.

This is the stuff of movies, yet director George Stevens sucks every ounce of drama out of it, preferring instead a muted and overly reverential tribute that dances around the soul of the Gospels and its characters. Max von Sydow’s ethereal Christ almost floats from one scene to another, foregoing any deeper understanding of Jesus as a fully human son of God, a faithful Jew, or a good shepherd. This Jesus dispenses each lesson with such studied cadence that, while the audience may be meant to ponder in awe, the more likely effect is that it is lulled to sleep. It is a good two hours before he shows some spark of life, when he admonishes the people for turning the temple into a marketplace. Under Stevens’s direction, it is truly a miracle that Jesus attracted any disciples.

The production design is equally static. The visuals have the same punch as a dusty painting of Jesus with his disciples that has been relegated to the back corner of a disused school chapel. Stevens wants to create a cinematic tapestry of the life of Christ, seeming to draw on the work of old masters, but his recreations lack the emotional nuance of his inspirations.

Much has also been made of the film’s expansive and entirely superfluous supporting cast. Movie stars, very big ones, pop in and out with frequency and rapidity. It is as if Hollywood wanted to stage a school production without leaving anyone out. Even John Wayne makes his infamous cameo as a centurion at Christ’s crucifixion. “Truly, this man was the son of Ghaaad.” Truly, you will thank God when this movie is over.

The trailer is better than the film.

Released: 1965
Prod: George Stevens
Dir: George Stevens
Writer: James Lee Barrett, George Stevens
Cast: Max von Sydow, Dorothy McGuire, Charlton Heston, Claude Rains, Jose Ferrer, Telly Savalas, Martin Landau, David McCallum, Donald Pleasence, Michael Anderson, Jr., Roddy McDowall, Joanna Dunham, Joseph Schildkraut, Ed Wynn, Carroll Baker, Richard Conte, Angela Lansbury, Sal Mineo, Sidney Poitier, Shelley Winters, John Wayne
Time: 260 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2014

Robin Hood (2010)

robin hood

Against my better judgment, I approve of this movie. There are problems aplenty, starting with the casting, namely the casting of Russell Crowe. This wasn’t one of those Daniel Craig as James Bond situations where everyone recanted with fawning apologies after watching the movie. No, the outcry continued after the film’s release. To be sure, Crowe is not the worst actor for the part, but Robin of the Hood possesses a certain cheekiness that people love, one that makes his rascally pursuit of the rich in service of the poor all the more winsome. Think merry men, think jaunty (mis-)adventures. Crowe is imposing and someone who you would ask to help steal back your grain, but he’s not someone you’re comfortable sharing a turkey leg with; “cheeky,” “merry,” and “jaunty” are not adjectives in his Venn diagram.

The fault is not entirely Crowe’s though. Director Ridley Scott belongs to the gritty rehash school of filmmaking where dark and weighty reimaginings of old heroes and historical adventures reign (Batman Begins, King Arthur, Kingdom of Heaven). This puts a damper on the storytelling. The bloated script runs about half an hour too long and is really an extended origins story. The movie begins with our hero, Robin Longstride, common archer for the king’s army and veteran of the Crusades, storming a French castle for king and country. He is also nursing some absent father issues, and these are magnified when he stumbles upon a dying Sir Robert Loxley (Douglas Hodge), whom he impersonates in order to get back home. He promises to return the knight’s sword to his old, blind father (Max von Sydow), but back in England, Robin finds he cannot shed his new identity so easily.

This is a fine perspective from which to better understand ye olde Robin, except this movie also has the rumblings of an early constitutional convention. The kingdom is a mess: Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston) has just died, felled by a French cook with an excellent shot; his brother John (Oscar Isaac), the royal runt, ascends the throne; the French threaten to invade, aided by English conspirator Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong). The last thing the new king needs is barons bickering over trivial matters of rights and laws. But the hallowed Magna Carta, at least its first draft, worms its way into a stuffed script, thus giving Robin the chance to bellow that “every Englishman’s home is his castle!” Right on.

So what do I like about this movie? The supporting cast carries a lot of extra weight and does so nimbly. Cate Blanchett is the fairest Maid Marian of them all, a medieval, uh, Renaissance woman. No one would doubt that she is capable of running 5000 acres in her husband Loxley’s stead. Blanchett embodies Marian’s tenderness but also lends an emotional, and physical, strength to her character. Strong also satisfies as a duplicitous, self-serving knight, but Isaac proves to be the scene-stealing baddie with something of a Napoleon complex. Meanwhile, the infamous Sheriff of Nottingham is only a footnote here but Matthew Macfadyen makes use of his limited screentime to show a more buffoonish character than we are used to. Robin’s partners in crime (Kevin Durand and Scott Grimes) are also a stalwart bunch who counter their friend’s somber mood with good comedic timing. Despite all efforts to heighten the gravity of this tale, enough lighthearted moments sneak in that recall Robin Hood adventures of yore and why you wanted to watch another adaptation in the first place.

Released: 2010
Prod: Ridley Scott, Brian Grazer, Russell Crowe
Dir: Ridley Scott
Writer: Brian Helgeland
Cast: Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Mark Strong, Oscar Isaac, Eileen Atkins, Max von Sydow, Mark Addy, William Hurt, Kevin Durand, Matthew Macfadyen, Lea Seydoux, Scott Grimes, Alan Doyle, Danny Huston, Mark Lewis Jones, Douglas Hodge, Jonathan Zaccai
Time: 140 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2014